Termination Dust

Termination dust on the Chugach mountains

Happy Fall Equinox! During our five-mile run this morning we marveled at the gorgeous termination dust on the Chugach mountains that arrived overnight. For those of you who are not up on Alaskan lingo, “termination dust” refers to the first dusting of snow on mountain tops, signaling the termination of summer. This means something to the beer drinking crowd of Anchorage.  When we see that first snow, we know that Midnight Sun Brewing is about to release Termination Dust Belgian Style Barley Wine.  It is only released when Lee Ellis, President of the brewery, sees snow on Flattop mountain.  Well, I looked up at Flattop today, and the snow stopped right above Flattop mountain.  So, I assumed the brewery would hold out, but to my surprise, I saw on social media that the release is happening today!  I have a bottle of this beer in my beer fridge from two years ago, so maybe it is time to drink that one as well, since it is Equinox, and I feel celebration in the air.

When Alaskans see termination dust, some take a big sigh of relief, and others start feeling depressed, depending on how one feels about the impending winter. I personally like winter more than summer, so I get very excited about longer nights, cozy evenings around a fire, movie nights without FOMO, football season, fat-biking, and most importantly, alpine ski season.  I love skiing, and I especially love skiing at Arctic Valley Ski Area!  I am a lifetime member of the Anchorage Ski club. Maria and I already bought our season passes, so seeing termination dust on the front range on Equinox makes me feel hopeful for a great upcoming ski season! I am certainly glad to live in Alaska! Now, I’m off to Midnight Sun Brewing to sample this year’s Termination Dust. Cheers!

Prints of this beer portrait are available at my Etsy shop

Lazy Morning at the Cabin

Maria and I are at the cabin in McCarthy today.  It has been ten years since we started building this little log house.  We woke up to rain and a bit of wind.  I started a fire in the wood stove, since rain promises a colder day. It is 45F outside, but a nice toasty 67F inside the cabin.  Should I put another log on the fire? I think not. 67F, is great but 75F is too warm.  I’m supposed to be outside harvesting dry spruce branches to fuel the Burning Dude, which will burn tomorrow at 9pm on the bank of the mighty Kennicott River. I made a lazy breakfast burrito with all the fixings and then volunteered to do the dishes.  The dishes are done, and it is still raining. I think I’ll have a pot of hot herbal tea, since the coffee is all gone and I don’t want anything with more caffeine at this point. I already did my yoga and there are no good reasons left not to go outside and get to work, but I am enjoying taking it slow today. I will go outside and harvest that brush when I am done writing this blog.  Until then, I’m going to enjoy watching the birds splash in the puddles outside, and the trees wiggle in the wind. The hot tea is great, and I can see fall happening all around me with yellow leaves falling from Aspen tops, and fireweed going to seed.  Yesterday we woke up to frost on the ground, then it started raining in the afternoon. I love how fall is a slower time of year — getting us all ready for the stillness of winter. I’m excited about tomorrow’s Burning Dude event, and I’ll talk about that in my next blog post. I wonder if anyone will come if it’s raining hard and windy.  At least fire danger will be low, since it has rained a bunch in the last 24 hours. Okay I’m ready to go out now. I better put on my waterproof gear, since I can hear the rain humming on the metal roof.

Burning Dude in McCarthy, Alaska
We built Burning Dude yesterday. The Dude is getting very wet in this rain storm. He will burn on 9.09 at 9:09pm on the bank of the Kennicott River.

Vending in Alaska

My wife, Maria, who is the Business Manager for our art business, was traveling in August for 17 days out of the last 25, which made me realize that I really rely on her for basically everything. When she is gone I have to do double the work I normally am expected to do. She also does the stuff that I don’t do as well on my own.  She was supposed to be back on Thursday last week, but my brother has been very ill and Maria volunteered to take my niece to Princeton, NJ to start college, so she was gone for most of this weekend too.  

While Maria was at Princeton, I was scheduled to set up my vending tent at the fabulous Chugachfest at my favorite ski area, Arctic Valley, on Friday and Saturday. Maria had one day in town between trips, and had spent it helping me get set up for vending at the festival. I was concerned, since there was a weather advisory for the weekend, because my merchandise is made from wood, canvas, and paper. It’s not that delicate, but wind and rain is not necessarily good for art. I decided not to bring my vending stuff up the bumpy Arctic Valley road, just to hurry back down with a billowing tarp and huge risk of damaged equipment and merchandise.

I drove up there on Saturday to see my favorite musician Michael Kirkpatrick play a short set, and saw the carnage from overnight. The Mountain Manager told me that every E-Z Up tent had flipped over and a few were halfway up the valley. The wind was still blowing, but we still had an awesome time listening to music.  The sound guy was doing a great job making the musicians sound their best!  So, I was really glad I made the decision not to set up my booth, eventhough Maria and I had spent so much time getting it ready. After Maria got back from Princeton, we went to Seward to catch Michael play at the Yukon Bar, and then followed him to Hope, like a couple of groupies, to see him play at the Seaview Cafe.  So much fun!  I love his new song Wrangell Mountain Rendezvous.

Not a good day to be a vendor at Arctic Valley!

This Saturday we have another opportunity to set up our vending tent — at the Alaska Craft Brew Festival! This is an event not to be missed!  The Delaney Park Strip comes alive with live music, and a huge amount of Alaskan craft beer, and some from the Lower 48, as well.  I love this event, because I never have to explain why I paint beer to the people there.  This is my crew! And most of the people already know who I am from Alaska Beer Nerds.  I have a good feeling about this weekend.  The weather is wonderful out right now, and historically this is the one weekend of August that has a break from the rain. I know, because Maria and I got married 19 years ago this weekend. It didn’t rain then, and over the last 18 years, normally doesn’t. So let’s hope for good luck, and at least a lack of wind!  Cheers to the upcoming Fest, I hope to see you there!   

It Takes Two

Maria’s cousin and her two sons have been visiting from Germany, and I have been doing a lot more work by myself, since they arrived about two weeks ago, while Maria and her Mom have been focusing on hosting. They’re taking a long holiday, visiting Alaska and the Southwest U.S. for two and a half weeks. First off, I was solo in McCarthy building the roof on Maria’s mom’s new cabin. I also finished a commissioned painting while I was awaiting their arrival. The new cabin is not too big, a 16x20ft log structure with a sleeping loft for overflow guests. It sure would have been nice to have the extra space when we had everyone visiting for a couple of nights last week! Before Maria left McCarthy to meet her relatives in Anchorage, we got all the log work done and installed the sleeping loft platform on the new cabin. I was forced to take the tarp down that had been protecting the building site from rain. The house had grown too tall to work under the tarp anymore. It is now the rainy season, which was worrying me, since I didn’t want the plywood and OSB flooring to take water damage. I successfully made and installed all the trusses and most of the metal roofing before the guests arrived. Of course it was raining. Maria had her cousin’s strong young sons help her bring out the large French door. When they arrived, we carried it to the site, and it was ready to install. The next day Maria and her guests went on a glacier hike and spent the afternoon in Kennecott. I was really worried about the lack of ridge-cap and spent the day putting it, and the last sheets of metal in place. I was also able to wiggle the huge door into place, and secure it to the log walls. When the crew got back from exploring the valley they helped me put the large window in. It sure is nice to have more than two hands to lift heavy stuff!

Mama Klava approves of her new cabin so far!

We all drove to Anchorage the next day, stopping off at the Klutina River to nab two Sockeye salmon. That weekend Maria and her guests flew around Denali, and then took a glacier cruise out of Whittier. I started catching up on work in the studio, and took down my art show at Dos Manos Gallery. We had an amazing dinner at Seven Glaciers restaurant at the top of Alyeska Resort. After resting up the next day, we went shopping for souvenirs downtown, and got all the guests packed up for their flight to Las Vegas. En-route to the airport, we had an amazing sushi boat dinner. Maria flew to Vegas the next morning, and I have been holding down the fort here in Anchorage while the Benner crew sees Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce National Parks, Sedona, and Mexico. They will have seen five National Parks when they are completely done!
Maria does a lot of work for the business. She makes, packages, and mails all the Etsy orders. She manages the business and home finances. She does half the house cleaning, she does a lot of the kitchen work, and makes sure I don’t mess up and miss out on stuff I should be taking care of. When Maria is gone, I have more freedom to do what I want, when I want, but the workload is probably doubled, so it really doesn’t make life any easier. In fact, life is way more difficult. My responsibilities are doubled, and my free time is cut in half. I really don’t know how single artists get everything done! I know that before Maria decided to become my business partner and manage the business end of Real Art is Better, I was decidedly less profitable. I will be fine, and she will be back after only nine days in the States. Cheers to our partnership! I can’t do it without my better half!

My Salmon Stock Recipe

Finished salmon stock ready for the canner

Today I would like to talk about salmon stock. Not the music festival now known as Salmonfest, but the base for making soups.  Maria and I always participate in the annual Alaskan salmon harvest, whether we catch fish, or buy it directly from a commercial fishing boat.  I lean towards buying fish, because every time I go fishing, there’s another piece of gear I need to buy, plus ice, gasoline, and not to mention the wear and tear on all the equipment, including our truck, that all adds up. It also takes a bunch of my time, which takes away from activities and work that I prefer doing.  When Maria and I bring home the fish we start processing it right away. Maria is on the filleting, and she hands me the heads. I stock pile heads in a bowl, while I prepare the vegetables.  I get the vegetables sautéing in some avocado oil. When the veggies are ready I add a bunch of water, about 2.5 gallons, to my 5 gallon stock pot. I remove the gills and fins, and clean out any guts that might be lingering in the head cavity. I leave any meat there, it is good for the stock.  I usually use 15 heads. The stock needs to simmer/lightly boil for about an hour, or so, after all the heads are prepped and plopped into the stock pot. Then strain out all the particles. We normally wait over night to do anything more, in order to let the stock cool down, and then Maria makes a soup, freezes some, and cans the rest in quart-size mason jars.  We take the shelf-stable jars to the cabin, and Maria makes yummy ramen there. I always drink a pint straight from the pot. This stuff is nectar from the sea gods! Cheers to the liquid gold, and I don’t mean beer this time!

Salmon Stock Recipe

Ingredients:

2.5 gallons water

15 Salmon heads (Sockeye, Coho, or Chinook)

Avocado oil

2 large leeks

2 large onions

2 large carrots

1 bulb of garlic

1 bunch celery (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

1. Sauté vegetables in avocado oil

2. Add water

3. Prepare and add salmon heads

4. Boil until the heads disolve into mush

5. Remove everything but the liquid

6. Can, freeze, or eat

7. Can at 10 pounds pressure for 25 minutes for quart jars

Stirring the pot
Salmon stock makes amazing ramen!

I Paint What I See

My job as an artist is to document life and to make art that people like to look at.  I paint beers, because I am into beer.  I also paint trucks, planes, trees, mountains, and animals, because that is what I am surrounded by.  If you release a product out into the world, and I run into it, I might decide to put it into a painting.  

A pretty famous California brewery recently told me I am no longer allowed to sell paintings of their beer.  They told me they want to keep anything with an image of their product strictly under their control.  I understand this and respect their decision, even though it frustrates me that they decided to let me know after I have already made 6 different paintings (all original compositions) of their beers.  I even painted live at their brewery’s taproom with their permission.  Now that it has been revoked, I feel a little cheated.  It’s hard to describe, because I don’t really feel like I have done anything wrong, but I do feel like something negative has happened here.  I don’t intend to stop making paintings of beer, but I also don’t intend to drink any more of that brewery’s product, which is fine, because it is actually pretty hard to get, especially in Alaska. 

I will continue to make commissions of any beer you want (excluding the breweries that forbid it).  I like to tell a story when I make a painting, and a successful painting causes a response from the viewer.  I want to evoke positive responses.  Normally, beer paintings make a viewer thirsty for that beer, bring up a memory of a good time, or simply bring joy to the person who is looking at it.  That is all I really want to do.  I never want to offend.  

I hope there aren’t many more unpleasant messages that come my way, telling me to stop doing my work.  I will continue with the exercise of documenting life, and telling visual stories with my artwork.  The good news is that there are a lot of small breweries and 99.99% of them value my work.  So, I will work with the ones that like what I am doing.

So, a toast to positive future vibes, and I hope you all continue to view, purchase, gift, and enjoy my art, as I intend to continue making it.                

Our Trip to Sitka

~ by Maria Benner

I decided to do a guest blog post today, to tell you all about our recent trip to Sitka. I have a tradition to visit places on, or around my birthday, where I’ve never been in Alaska. Since Alaska is such a big place, and some towns are only accessible by plane, or boat, my list is long. I’ve lived in Alaska for 30 years, and had never been to Sitka, the former capital of Alaska when it “belonged” to Russia. I used quotation marks, because Alaska Natives were here first.

The news has been making a big deal about how difficult it is to travel this summer, with flight cancellations being the norm, hotels and restaurants understaffed, and a high demand for all these services from travelers who have been cooped up too long during the pandemic. Well, the news was kind of right, but we didn’t really experience inconveniences to the extent that travel experts have been warning us about. Our Alaska Airlines flights were full, and on the way back, one passenger was asked to leave the plane, because he was non-revenue, so he lost his seat to a revenue passenger. He had already flown on our flight from Sitka to Juneau, but got kicked off in Juneau, and didn’t get to fly to Anchorage as he had planned. However, all our flights were on time! I was surprised at how few passengers wore masks, considering the transmission rate is high right now. All Alaska Airlines and airport employees wore masks, and so did we. I plan to always wear a mask on an airplane.

Sitka is a cruiseship port, so for most of the day the town was busy with cruiseship passengers. Lincoln Street is the main shopping district, and also where the famous St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral is. All the ships leave at 5pm, so after that, the town was ours! Getting lunch was our biggest challenge. All the restaurants were full, and understaffed. We had to show up to dinner at 5:30 to get a table, and had lunch at the Asian Palace both days, because it had tables available, probably since it was off the main street. I will never forget the silky, perfectly-cooked King salmon at Beak Restaurant.

Lincoln Street busy with cruiseship passengers
Deserted after the cruiseships left

We got super lucky on the weather. Last year my birthday trip was to Cordova, and it was raining sideways from every single side. This year karma really rewarded us with beautiful blue skies. I really wanted to see the famous Mt. Edgecumbe volcano, and got to see it! On our last day the cloud ceiling appeared, and blocked the tops of the mountains and the volcano.

Mt. Edgecumbe Volcano

The trip was a dream. I definitely recommend doing research about all the must-see places in Sitka, before you go there. I ended up being the guide for our little group of three: me, my mom, and Scott. They didn’t bother learning anything ahead of time, so I was in charge of our itinerary. You don’t need a car in Sitka. There are nice public buses that will take you everywhere, but you can walk to almost every attraction. My only regret was not having time to go on a hike. Two days is plenty of time to explore the most interesting places.

Next year I plan to visit Lake Clark National Park.

The Pros and Cons of Having My Studio at Home vs. a Commercial Space

It’s been a year since we moved into this new house and combined our living space with the workspace.  In 2015 I moved my studio mostly out of our home, which was a small condo in Fairview back then, to a corner space inside the 4th Avenue Market Place building.  I used to love working at home. It was easy to get to work, since the studio was just in the spare bedroom. But, I didn’t have enough space, and clients were less than impressed to see me working in a room less than 160 square feet large. Moving to the commercial space was okay, but I had a landlord and I was always worried rent would go up, or the building would sell, and I would have to move out. It was a great space with a view of the Port of Anchorage.  Although the heat was not consistent, too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, and the ventilation system didn’t function properly in a room that had huge windows that didn’t open.  There was also a lot of activity on 4th Avenue I was not too fond of. Converting the studio into a pop-up gallery for special events like First Fridays, holidays, or Fur Rondy and the Iditarod was really great! I met a lot of new people, and those events more than paid for the lease.

Old Studio on 4th Ave decked out for an event

Moving my studio into the house has been great! I get to work at home again, so I don’t have to pack a lunch, and commute on my bike in all types of weather. I can still have patrons visit the studio, and I finally have a garage where I can build painting supports, frames and sculptures. The downside is I have to find venues for First Friday art shows, and I’m not on 4th Avenue during Fur Rondy and Iditarod. But working and living in one place means I don’t have tools in two different locations, the kitchen is just upstairs and I don’t have to be worried about running power tools on the sidewalk downtown. I control the temperature of my workspace, the windows open, and I have a garage.  I have never had a private garage space in my life, since moving out of my parents’ house. When we return from an event, we can just park the truck inside, instead of having to drive to the studio to unload everything, before driving home.

New studio in our home

There were many pros to the downtown studio. I miss the view of Denali, and the Inlet.  It was very close to everything downtown, which was usually fun. I am not part of the downtown gallery scene anymore. Even though my studio was not really a gallery, it was fun to transform it temporarily into one. Now, when people come over to pickup/shop for art it’s at my home. We haven’t had a big open-to-the-public party like we used to at the downtown studio yet, and I’m not sure if we ever will. Instead, we prefer to schedule studio visits. Patrons can enjoy a home-brew while looking at my newest art. I almost always have home-brewed beer available in the garage, which is connected to my studio with just one door! Even-though I did lose something when I left downtown, the gains outweigh the losses.  This is better for me, and hopefully for you.

Summer Plans

Is it just us, or is summer crazy for everyone? I feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants, and running around with my head cut off. Most of the time crunch has to do with going out to our cabin in McCarthy, which is very time consuming, but so worth the 300-mile trip one-way! Because the drive takes so long, we try to make it worth our time by spending at least a week out there. When we’re back in Anchorage, we’re catching up on painting commissions, mailing orders, doing art shows, and managing to do some house chores and hang out with our friends in between. The unrelenting summer heatwave with endless sunlight also contributes to the hyper-activity. I guess we have all winter to rest.

So, what are our summer plans? Well, Maria’s mom really loves visiting us in McCarthy, but she’s fed up with staying in our small cabin with us, so she commissioned us to build her a log cabin on our property. I’m really excited about building another log cabin, but Maria says she already built one, and is not that stoked about doing it again, because she forgot how hard it is! This project will take up most of our time, and we hope to have it completed this summer.

The foundation for the mother-in-law cabin, and some of the D logs that we have to peel for it

Other than that, we will spend most of our time working on the art business. I have two art shows happening this summer that are kicking off tomorrow on First Friday, June 3. One is my regular show at Midnight Sun Brewing that I have every year, and the second one is at a new-to-me venue, Dos Manos Gallery. I have been selling my art there for several years, but this is my first time being the featured artist in the gallery room! We hung the art there today, and I’m really happy with how it looks! I hope you check out both of my art shows, and bring your friends!

My art show at Dos Manos Gallery

We will also be vendors at two events. The first one is the Eagle River Beer & Music Festival on Saturday, June 4th. I love having a booth at beer festivals, because that’s where I find fans of my beer art! We will also be participating in the Beer, Beards and Art Market at Anchorage Brewing Co. on June 18th, 4-9pm.

Besides work, and building a cabin, we’re flying to Sitka to celebrate Maria’s birthday. She likes going to places in Alaska for her birthday that she’s never been to. Of course, Salmonfest is not-to-be-missed, and then Maria’s cousin from Germany is coming to visit with her two sons, so we’ll get to do some Alaska tourist activities with them, which are always amazing!

I hope to see you at some of these events this summer, and if I don’t, I wish you a safe and fun summer! What are your plans this summer?

Tok Thai Food

Tok Thai Food by Scott Clendaniel, 20″x16″, oil on canvas

My Aunt Barbara took a photo of a raven sitting on top of the Tok Thai Food establishment on her drive back from a visit to McCarthy, and I got her permission to make a painting based on her photo. According to a review on Yelp, Tok Thai Food has the best Panang Curry in Alaska.  I’m going to get some on my way back from McCarthy next time.  This roadside restaurant is an enigma, and I don’t know much about it. All I could find online were the menu and a bunch of positive reviews. The official website’s title page calls it Tok Tdai Food.  I have always had a good meal there, but is it really “t’die” for?  So, why is Tok Thai Food in Glennallen, and not in Tok?  The questions keep on rolling. Why is the best food in Glennallen, Thai food? Why is the best Thai food in Alaska located in Glennallen? Who owns this place? Who is making this delicious food?

What I do know is that I love stopping at this crossroad on my way back from McCarthy, and taking a minute, or 20 to get out of the truck, get some gas, and have fresh food. Making a stir fry from old cabbage, a spotty squash, and some canned chicken at the cabin in McCarthy may fill my belly, but it is far from what you get at Tok Thai Food. I think it’s the location that makes it so special. Strategically located at the T, where the Glenn Highway meets the Richardson.  If you are going to Chitina to dipnet, or want to go to Valdez, you drive right past it.  If you want to go to Tok, Whitehorse, Haines or Seattle, you will also drive right past it.  It is four hours from Anchorage, and four hours from the Canadian border, perfectly located for lunch.  

I painted this iconic sign because it represents returning to civilization. After a month in the Wrangell Mountains, a hot meal is welcome.  The Radio Shack sign in Glennallen advertising hot pizza is alluring, but they don’t actually have hot pizza, or at least not when I have been there.  The Freeze has long since closed its doors. The IGA may have some sandwiches and deli snacks, but it is far from excellent.  The raven in this painting symbolizes wilderness to me, and the bright yellow manufactured plastic sign, humanity.  After washing hands in the gas station, and getting a crispy fried egg-roll, it feels good to know, that yes, they do sell auto parts within the Glennallen city limits. This painting is about the balance of going to the wilderness to reduce stress by leaving the trappings of the city behind, while in the wilderness there is a different kind of stress of knowing you only have what you brought with you. It is good to change it up, find the ataraxia (Greek for balance), remind yourself what is important in your life, and you will find your inner peace.        

The original oil painting on canvas will be on display, and available for sale at my art show at Dos Manos Gallery in June and July. The art opening reception will take place on First Friday, June 3, 5-8pm. I will also have some prints available.